“I was reminded of Hitchcock’s boast that his films were not slices of life but slices of cake.” JACKSON CAINES explains.

anthony hopkins helen mirren hitchcock jackson caines jess cronenworth Psycho sacha gervasi

In the mythology of British culture, Alfred Hitchcock has become to film what the Beatles are to music. Once disdained by critics, Hitchcock has since the 1960s been feted as the cinematic master par excellence, with Vertigo (1958) just last year declared the greatest film ever made. As well as TV drama The Girl, we now have a further addition to the Hitchcock cult of personality: Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock, which examines the making of perhaps the director’s most enduring film, Psycho.

Gervasi’s film is based on Stephen Rebello’s book, ‘Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho’, a much-praised behind-the-scenes account from 1990. It takes as its starting point a crossroads moment in Hitchcock’s career: North By Northwest has just proved a roaring success, but what now for the Master of Suspense? When a reporter irreverently suggests it’s time to retire, Hitchcock sets out to prove his doubters wrong in style. Robert Bloch’s Psycho – a trashy suspense novel full of gore, perversion and cross-dressing – offers the perfect ingredients for a thriller like no one’s seen before, and to the horror of his producers and his long-suffering wife, Alma, Hitchcock buys the rights.

It’s certainly a gamble. Psycho’s salacious script has a hard time getting past the censors (after all, it does show a toilet flushing for the first time in cinema history). Hitch and Alma might even have to sell their swimming pool to raise a budget. The problem with Gervasi’s film, however, is that we know from the outset that the gamble pays off. If it didn’t, there probably wouldn’t be a film about it in the first place. So although Gervasi desperately tries to up the stakes, the dramatic momentum can’t help but fizzle out. It’s much the same with the film’s love story: when Helen Mirren’s Alma experiments with some extra-marital companionship, it’s difficult to feel emotionally engaged – perhaps because she and Hitch never had much chemistry to begin with.

It has to be said that Anthony Hopkins makes a good fist of his Hitchcock impression, nailing the director’s trademark macabre humour. Moreover, Gervasi’s dramatic conceit of having a real-life psychopath embody Hitchcock’s inner demons is an admirable effort to lift the project beyond biopic mediocrity. Unfortunately, despite its filmic subject matter, Hitchcock suffers from a distinctly TV look-and-feel. I suspect this may be the fault of cinematographer Jeff Cronenworth, whose work is characterised by a bland HD glow.

There is nothing offensively bad about Hitchcock. The worst it can be accused of is a lack of ambition; perhaps when you tackle a personality as big as Hitchcock you have to be more willing to take risks. Watching the fate of Psycho being wrapped up (by an all-too-neat montage in which Hitch and Alma roll up their sleeves and get down to work), I was reminded of Hitchcock’s boast that his films were not slices of life but slices of cake. Gervasi’s at best lacks a cherry on top, and at worst is half-baked.